Los Angeles, larger than any other American city except New York, is a gargantuan urban complex living ‘on the edge’ and the city most urgently in need of a massive urban planning overhaul.  Despite the lessening of the smog problem since the 1970’s, the city still has the nation’s highest year-round concentration of particulate pollution, caused by the inefficient spread of resources across a large area.  The city’s famously extensive network of freeways collects traffic as much as it facilitates fast and easy flow, and the drivers of the city experience an average of 72 hours of traffic delays each year, the highest in the U.S.A.  The city area of 469 square miles has both flat and hilly areas, and the population of 3,900,000 lives in one and two-story homes and apartment houses, as well as in clusters of relatively dense development.  There are numerous neighborhood centers, serving as business, shopping and entertainment hubs for nearby residents, yet no all-inclusive center, not even Downtown L.A., which is today experiencing a renaissance and attracting a widening range of urban amenities to augment its business core.

 A Short History of Los Angeles and Its Early Transit Demise

Los Angeles was settled by 44 Spaniards in 1781, after the area had been inhabited for thousands of years by Native American tribes.  Oil was discovered in 1892 and by the 1920’s, the city and state were the country’s largest oil producers.  By this time, the nation’s film industry was concentrated here and, when the Great Depression hit, the financial strength of Hollywood helped shield the city from much of the effects of the financial calamity.  Oil and film production, as well as many complementary industries, and the year-round mild weather, led to the city doubling its population during the 1920’s alone, rising from 500,000 residents to well over 1,000,000.  Much of the city was served by two major streetcar companies providing lines connecting the Downtown, Mid-City, and beach areas.  By the early 1950’s, however, most of the streetcar lines had been removed and replaced by electric trolley buses or freeway infrastructure, in what became known as The General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy.  The stage was set for L.A. to become the car-centric, car-crazed urban jungle that it is today.

Public Transit in Los Angeles Today

Public transit options in L.A. have improved since the 1950’s, especially under the leadership of Mayor Tom Bradley, who steadfastly pushed for high-quality, rail-based transit.  The city opened its first light-rail line – The Blue Line – in 1990 and its first subway – The Red Line – in 1993, and then other subway and light-rail lines in the years to come.  In a political struggle that continues, The Purple Line, the subway line running under L.A.’s ‘Main Street’ – Wilshire Boulevard, was never built out the entire length of the street to the beach in Santa Monica, and instead terminates in the Mid-City area.  This one line, running under one of the city’s most heavily used bus lines, should have been the very first subway line to have been built, as the tipping point of conversion from bus to rail service has long justified a subway.  Nevertheless, the demands of providing public transit to a city with a large working-class population commuting across a sprawling city have propelled the city’s transit system to become one of the most well-regarded in the country, despite its inherent short-comings due to sprawl and political misguidance.  The bus fleet is entirely CNG powered, the largest such fleet in the country, but the BRT lines – which cover lengthy routes – are not run over BRT lanes but streets subject to traffic delays, defeating the purpose of ‘rapid’ bus service.

The Los Angeles Urban Laboratory of The Future

Los Angeles is considered by many planners as the city with the most to gain from an extensive overhauling.  Starting at the top of the transit priorities, the city should find a way to fast-track its rail-based transit by creating lines using driverless, five-minute frequency trains (like Copenhagen), where density warrants, and building an extensive BRT-only lane network on 2nd priority routes.  In Downtown and other special zones, Copenhagen-style bike infrastructure can contribute to traffic-thinning, as well as selective freeway removal, congestion pricing, and infill development.  Finally, extensive urban farming, which can be partly accommodated by repurposing the medians of the many wide and light-traffic streets throughout the city,  would reduce the emission footprint of the city by reducing the transportation of goods from hundreds of miles away.